About Susie Wyshak
An SF Bay Area gal, you'll find the world I blog about includes:
California food events and experiences (see http://epicuring.com)
Artisan and gourmet food business (see http://nuttyfig.com)
And all things travel + ideas, both passions (see http://superviva.com)
Latest Posts by Susie Wyshak
“There’s not much of a bloom this year due to the lack of rain all winter. Currently, there are only a few small poppy flowers here and there along the path” reports the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, which keeps its website updated daily during poppy blooming season along with a call-in number.
That call-in number let me to the poppy preserve a few years ago, just a few miles off I5. When road tripping a few extra miles can cause the neck hair to prickle. Ignore it. Imagine arriving at fields of orange, hills covered with orange and purple. Early morning with sun-saturated colors and a slight chill warmed by the sun. No one else around. You pull over. Total silence.
How to get there: The preserve is about 30 miles off of I5, near the small town of Lebec as you pass through the mountain range, south of what California road trippers call “the grapevine.”
My drive to the Crowne Plaza in Ventura embarked at 4am from the Bay Area, all to arrive for a book-making session at the second Craftcation Conference, a three day paper, scissors and knowledge-filled event full of Etsy-style makers.
My room wasn’t yet ready so early, just the excuse to putter around in the pop-up craft supply and arts shop set up for the event and meet all sorts of cool chicks with dyed hair, glittery jewelry and an unfettered enthusiasm for plushy dolls. I was there to help people learn about food trends and California’s new Homemade Food Act which allows some people to make some foods for sale at home.
I sighed relief as reception finally handed me the plastic room key and I got in the elevator. Three more people loaded in. One guy had a big black suitcase, a black t-shirt, black hair, and a few black skulls and cross bones smattered around, most noticeably as a tattoo. The elevator was that slow kind designed for people holding an egg on a spoon. Amped up on hours of coffee, I decided to blurt out: “Are you here for a show?” After all, if he wasn’t, what guy wouldn’t be pumped to think some woman thought he was a rock star? He affirmed yes. With a mental eye roll, prepared to hear the name of some no-name band, I asked who he was with.
“The Specials.” My heart exploded. “Whaaaaaat?!” Like a teenage groupie of this late 70s ska band, a string of enthusiastic rants poured from my mouth about how I’d never seen them, what a big fan I was. He asked if I was going to the show, and when I said no, offered tickets. Uh, ya. Like a scene from the Brady Bunch he pointed to the corner and said, “He’s our tour manager. Give him your info and we’ll put you on the list with two tickets.” No networker has ever seen my business card whip out so quickly.
Talking to strangers makes magic happen
This 30-second encounter blew my Ventura trip out of the water from exciting to explosively awesome. From my idle comment I…
- Generated a day’s worth of ice-breaking conversation with other conference goers, from which I discovered an amazing correlation between crafters and old-school punk fans.
- Made new friends at the Caffrodite coffee shop, an adorable name for a ramshackle place two sisters own, also old-school punk fans I’d overheard saying they were going to a show. (When I ran into the owner at the show, she gave me a big hug.) See my Cafe a Day project, capturing “coffee and a slice of life,” for a visual flavor of the excitement.
- Reconnected with my old boyfriend who grew up in the town and drove up to see this awesome band which he’d surprisingly never seen earlier.
- Danced my ass off! Always a good thing.
- Met the singer when he was checking out…and got to further my teenage groupie connections with the conference attendees.
- Inspired my roommate at the hotel — who later said she thought a band member was on one of her elevator rides but was too shy to talk to him — that it’s silly to not talk to strangers and that she wants to re-gain her old chutzpah to take advantage of opportunities like that.
- Had a chance to write this article and inspire people like you to take risks and go with the flow.
When I decided to go to Craftcation, I also never dreamed that Ventura would so capture my heart, a very laid back place with more independent small businesses than chains. This clean, quiet, beautiful beachside town is only an hour north of Los Angeles and half an hour south of Santa Barbara. The Ventura Theater, which hosts lots of cool bands, is a restored 1920s style movie theater in the grand California over-the-top tradition (think: lots of gold paint). My big discovery was the massive number of great thrift shops. (Turns out my friends go to Ventura just to hit the thrift shops.)
What I discovered at the conference is that crafting and starting a business is fun and fulfilling. What I reflected on the drive home is that crafting a life of synchronicity whether traveling or home makes for a life well lived, plushy or not.
Making candy is a centuries old profession, easy to start yet difficult to master and develop a cult following. If you think the environment for candy is competitive today, hearken back to the early 1800s, when the medieval town of Lubeck, Germany was home to 135 marzipan “companies.” Back then companies were likely a small storefrontwith the basics found in an old fashioned candy store–a kettle, marble slabs, some molds.
I recently learned about the region’s delicious history–a place where the museum features figures carved in marzipan rather than wax–on a tour of mid-sized candy and chocolate factories with the German Sweets association. Since 1996, “Lübecker Marzipan,” from Lübeck in northern Germany, has been protected by an EU Council Directive as a “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) much like Champagne.
“That’s the marzipan I get at Cost Plus!” a friend exclaimed. Sold in 40 countries and on all continents, Niederegger‘s 500 dedicated* employees churn out about 30 tons of marzipan paste per day. If Lubeck could solve its debt problems with marzipan, everyone would be happy. Despite tough times the company’s sales have done quite well. Much like the “sin” products, they’ve found a little marzipan makes life rosier.
*One just retired after 45 years!
Our Factory Tour
It was an almond lover’s dream. After a steam blanching, winnowing to remove the skins, six women sit, pulling out any odd or unskinned almonds.
Overhead conveyors filled with almond paste dumped the mixtures into the vats. After roasting, the mixture cools in a 500-kilo capacity vat. Steaming dry ice does the job. We tasted chunks of freshly ground paste scooped out of the copper kettles, as well as the marzipan after roasting–which happens after the sugar is mixed with the almond paste. “Eat a lot,” our guide urged us.” We need to finish it all.” Sigh.
Through an extruder in which about 10 inch square logs of sugared almond paste squeeze through, chopped into 18 inch blocks, weighing about 15 kg, which are then wrapped to be aged in plastic cartons. There the flavor develops.
After aging, the special flavors such as a European rose water are added. Then it’s off to the enrobing lines where stamped out hearts take shape.
The seasonal-shaped marzipans are what’s really special. In December, Easter production begins. An army of standing bunnies emerged on a conveyor belt, destined to be torched–with a creme brulee style-and eyes added by bespectacled women holding tiny paint brushes. Dot. Dot.
Nearby, workers laboriously press molds with marzipan, just as in old times, for custom orders or as cake toppers. Consumers and businesses can order molds in any shape or saying, such as for corporate gifts. The company keeps the molds on hand for any future orders.
Some Business Best Practices
Niederegger handles export in-house to allow for quick decision making and personal relationships. They diversified with a series of German “nougat” products (which is similar to Italian gianduja), to reach non-marzipan loving candy lovers. The company does not private label and they would never entertain it due to their strong brand recognition and demand for their 300 products.
As with other factories we visited on this candy industry tour, employees at Niederegger are welcome to air any issues to management. Even broadcast news teams have visited the factory to see workers stretching and engaging in mini-workouts for ergonomic and overall health. Now a smoke-free company, it’s verboten to smoke during the workday. And production workers rotate roles for variety.
Thousands of products tasted, just a few winners, the second annual Good Food Awards united good tasters with incredible food crafts–chocolate, coffee, beer, spirits, cheese, pickles and preserves, and charcuterie for one intense day of tasting and judging. As a chocolate committee member, I can guarantee food lovers will feel the buzz of happy food makers and interesting, delicious hand-crafted foods (and libations) at these events:
GOOD FOOD AWARDS CEREMONY: JANUARY 13
Be the first to fete the 99 Good Food Award Winners of 2012, flown in from 26 states, together with chefs, media and the 130 Good Food Award judges (including Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl). At this black tie optional gala, taste the winning foods from all corners of the country both in regional tasting plates and as envisioned by local chefs from The Boxing Room, Foreign Cinema, Absinthe, Bar Agricole, the Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessan and more. An open bar will serve up the 15 winning brews and creations with winning spirits by bartending phenomena the Bon Vivants of Trick Dog.
Date: Friday, January 13, 8-10:00 pm
Location: San Francisco Ferry Building Main Hall
GOOD FOOD AWARDS MARKETPLACE, JANUARY 14
Date: Saturday, January 14, 8:00 am – 2:00 pm
Location: San Francisco Ferry Building Front Alcoves
General Admission Tickets: $5 at the door
Early Access Tickets: $15
Be the first to sample and shop with exclusive access from 8-9 am, plus a special gift from the Good Food Awards.
Happening only once a year, the marketplace gathers together the new award winners from 26 states who are redefining ‘good food’ by crafting products that are both incredibly tasty and responsibly produced. Market goers are invited to taste and buy the best from across the country. From Colorado cheesemakers to Ohio picklers, come meet the winners and take home a unique taste of America’s food culture.
Beer & Spirits Garden at the Marketplace
Date: Saturday, January 14, 11:00 am – 2:00 pm
Location: Upstairs in the San Francisco Ferry Building
Tickets: $12 (Includes Five Tastes plus General Admission to the Marketplace)
Drink early and drink often! For the first time the public will be able to sample a gathering of 15 of the winning beer and spirits from all five regions of the country poured by the brewers and distillers themselves. Spirits will be served up in their pure form and mixed in signature cocktails.